Did you know that Brian Wilson and his Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks have prepared a new song-cycle, which premiered in London earlier this month?
That’s big news for music fans, but it seems to be coming in a little under the radar. Here’s some of what had Andrew Hickey had to say:
The suite starts with a slow, soulful arrangement of the title song, with contrapuntal vocals somewhere between the old Beach Boys song He Come Down and Brian’s arrangement of Ol’ Man River, before bursting into the Shortenin’ Bread riff Brian has based so much of his music on. The band start singing “Ooh mow mama mama holy hallelujah” – a vocal line that Brian first mentioned in an interview thirty years ago – and the piece proper begins.
Is That Lucky Old Sun any good? I truly have no idea. It’s too complex a piece, and too multi-layered, and the performance of it too bound up in personal expectations, for any kind of judgement to be made on one hearing. But in a sense, the question doesn’t matter. That Lucky Old Sun is exciting – in a way that no-one could have expected. This is the work of a 65-year-old man. 65 year old men don’t make exciting music. Paul McCartney’s new album might be quite pleasant, but he knows no-one’s going to remember him as ‘the man who made Memory Almost Full‘, and it shows.
Brian Wilson appears not to have given up hope that he’ll be remembered as ‘the man who made That Lucky Old Sun‘, and it’s just about possible that he might. While in some ways this new work bears comparison to the McCartney album, at heart it couldn’t be more different. While both have lyrics looking back from the end of a life and recapping themes of old songs, in the case of That Lucky Old Sun they’re working in tension against the music, which is overwhelmingly energetic, inspired, throwing off ideas like there’s a million more out there to get to in a hurry.
Like I said earlier, this may well be a failure – I’m just not willing to trust my own judgement based on one emotionally-charged live performance – but if it is it’s a glorious, fantastic mess of a failure, the kind of failure one might expect from an artist a third of Wilson’s age. And I suspect it isn’t.
The fact is, some of the greatest creative geniuses in pop music have…gotten old. It happens. But that doesn’t mean they’re out of ideas necessarily.
Sometime in the past 10 or 20 years, a consensus formed that the greatest genius of the incredibly fertile rock music era was Brian Wilson. After a long hiatus for reasons well-documented, Wilson returned to active status about 10 years ago, performing his old hits, completing the unfinished Smile, and writing songs. The pop music world treats him as a relic, but what if he’s not? Can he top “Good Vibrations?”